The most astonishing item in the Sermon on the Mount
We all associate the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, but these occupy just ten verses, whereas the whole sermon as recounted in Matthew’s Gospel is more than ten times that length. It occupies 111 verses spanning three chapters (5-7). We would all admit, I think, that Our Lord’s message throughout is deeply spiritual; it was certainly something very different from what His audience was used to hearing. But in rereading it this week, three verses struck me as the most impressive of all.
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Of course, we all have special moments when reading Scripture, when some aspect of the text strikes us in a new way that produces what for us, in that moment, is an important spiritual insight. That’s one reason it is so important to read and reread the Bible, through which the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts in fresh ways, enabling us in a flash to see something more about God and about our relationship with Him, and about our relationship with others in and through Jesus Christ.
What I noticed last night was that there is something very different about chapter 7, verses 21 to 23. Throughout the sermon, of course, Our Lord emphasized a new and deeper understanding of life which fulfills everything that the Jews had known through the law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17). What is most interesting and challenging overall is the spiritual sublimity of the message, emphasizing again and again that it is not through worldly dominance that we draw close to God but through humility, purity of heart, and mercy toward others.
Throughout the sermon, a positive spirituality encompasses but also eclipses the avoidance of the most obvious sins: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’... But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (5:21-22). And so it goes throughout the text. Our Lord takes up each topic and deepens our spiritual understanding of it, not just as a rule, but as an attitude of a life shaped in every respect by selfless love.
But it is also very deeply human. At each stage, Jesus is referring to a more perfect understanding of human realities: Anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, generosity with those in need. Or he is deepening our understanding of our relationship with God, as when he teaches us the Our Father, comments on fasting, encourages us to lay up treasures in heaven, and urges us to lay aside our anxieties and trust in God. He refers to the moral law and its fulfillment, and to our need to become childlike in our dependence on the love of our “Father who is in heaven” (e.g., 7:11). He even emphasizes how important his words on these matters are:
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. [7:26-27]
But throughout the sermon, Our Lord claims importance not so much for himself as for his teachings and for our relationship with our heavenly Father. He does not claim to be God, or the Son of God; nor does He claim to speak as God but rather about God.
Except in one place. In one place he suddenly changes his tone and his frame of reference. The mood shifts, and he gives us a glimpse of his own glory. Almost out of the blue, he exclaims:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” [7:21-23]
“That day” would have been understood by His immediate audience as the great “day of the Lord” which is referenced throughout Scripture by most of the prophets—the time when God fully manifests Himself in power and judgement, punishing the guilty, and establishing a final kingdom of Divine righteousness. “That day” is a terrifying day. It is the day on which all resistance to God comes to its shameful and hopeless end.
And here, all of a sudden, with no warning, this Jesus suddenly stops referring to God in the third person, and instead exclaims that on that distant day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord” and I will declare to them that I never knew you.
We’re only a quarter of the way into Matthew’s Gospel. Apart from a voice like thunder at Our Lord’s baptism, Matthew has not yet recounted a single miracle. Yet here is a sudden glimpse of something more, of something else entirely.
And it is astonishing.
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